On May 29th, the Rwandan National Electoral Commission (NEC) made the unsettling announcement that it would oversee social media use by candidates in the upcoming election. This was widely perceived as a means of handicapping the opposition candidates. President Paul Kagame has handily won two prior elections, and analysts are giving him very high odds of winning this year’s as well. Kagame hardly needs to social media to win, so even if the NEC’s new policies were applied fairly, they would arguably tend to hurt the campaigns of Habineza and the other opponents.
At the same time, this raised a larger question: since Kagame is likely to win either way, why enact a controversial censorship policy? Even the US ambassador to Rwanda, Erica Barks-Ruggles, has spoken out against the NEC’s proposal. Professor Kalisa Mbanda, head of the NEC, had explained the earlier policy in terms of preventing civil unrest. He was concerned that inflammatory posts on social media could “lead the population to acts of insecurity that could divide the Rwandan population.”
Again, it is hard to avoid a comparison with the current US administration, where a President with an itchy Twitter finger seems to be fueling partisan rancor. That comparison highlights some of the practical problems with the NEC’s plan. Inflammatory speech need not be original, or come from the candidates themselves: reblogs by proxies work just fine. So unless the NEC wanted to shut down all social media in Rwanda, they would have been walking a fine line.
In more recent turns of events, the NEC’s policy was effectively defanged by the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA), which asserted that the NEC had no mandate in this area. The proposed rule has since been rescinded.
These moves and counter-moves suggest a possible underlying logic. Kagame is likely to remain in power, but not forever. It would appear that Rwanda’s government agencies are positioning themselves in light of possible futures. Kagame is unlikely to forget that the NEC defended him—even if it was unnecessary, and even if he did not ask them to (which is quite possible). At the same time, neither Kagame nor his opponents are unlikely to forget that it was RURA who blocked this maneuver. Social media is new, but the political chess game is very, very old.